It was unthinkable entering the 2017 season, with the Gators ranked No. 17, coming off a conference title game appearance and a 27-point bowl win over Iowa, that this weekend’s game against the University of Alabama-Birmingham would arrive with any doubts about the probable winner. Yet, here we are.
Just over two months since those original expectations were first tested in UF’s season opener against Michigan, the Gators are on a five-game losing streak, lost their coach and have secured their second losing regular season in the past 37 years.
There’s unlikely to be a bowl game, which means the Gators are playing for nothing but pride. They are without nine players, who have been suspended since before the season began. And they are without a starter at every single position, as each group has lost at least one player to injury for the season. Is pride enough enough to combat all those problems? Coach Randy Shannon thinks so. The Blazers, who will visit Gainesville for the third time, are hoping he’s wrong.
“This really shows who you are as a person and as a player,” defensive lineman Taven Bryan said after Saturday’s 28-20 loss to South Carolina. “If you quit, you’re a quitter. Once you’re a quitter, you’re always a quitter.”
While Florida has floundered further and further into the abyss with each game, UAB has been a pleasant surprise. The Blazers are 7-3.
“So that should wake everybody,” Shannon said about players taking the game for granted.
The Gators will have to combat them with even more players missing. Shannon announced Monday that starting center T.J. McCoy is likely out for the rest of the season, and quarterback Malik Zaire, who has started the team’s past two games, is day-to-day with a leg injury. A source close to Zaire said he sustained a PCL bruise and will be out this weekend. He’ll be back for the season finale against Florida State if all goes well.
That leaves Feleipe Franks as the de-facto starter. Florida has five scholarship quarterbacks — Franks, Zaire, Luke Del Rio, Jake Allen and Kyle Trask — on its roster, and Franks is the only healthy one left. Shannon said receiver Dre Massey, who played some quarterback in high school, will work out of the Wildcat if Franks goes down.
All the injuries have made the players appreciate the chance to play, which Shannon is hoping finally leads to a much-needed win ahead of the “disappointment bowl” against rival Florida State the following weekend.
“This is something that could be taken away from you,” he said. “And if you ask each and every one of them what would you do if you didn’t have football, you’d probably have about a 10-second pause because they really don’t know. Because this is all they have right now.”
So even if this isn’t what they imagined, players still have the future to play for. That as well as the seniors, who are only 10 1/2-point favorites over UAB in The Swamp in their second-to-last game as Gators.
Their motivation is not wanting to leave a worse legacy than the one that already exists.
“I put this on me,” senior linebacker Cristian Garcia said. “I put this on all of the seniors. This year shouldn’t have turned out the way it did. It’s definitely tough. You just gotta role with the punches, though.”